This article is also published in the Financial Times.
There have been two constant factors in what has become our annual restaurant foray across the Pyrenees from south-west France into north-east Spain.
The first is physical and involves me looking out for a particular sign on the A9 motorway as it skirts Narbonne and brings the Mediterranean into view. This sign reads 'vent violent', strong wind, and marks for me the entrance to rugged Catalonia, a region that has produced so many exciting chefs over the past 20 years.
The second is invisible and involves readjusting the clock on one's appetite: lunch and dinner in Spain will always take place at least two hours later than in France.
This transition seemed somewhat easier on this trip as instead of heading east once across the border to the coast we continued south of Girona, before heading north west and then via a series of new motorways and winding older roads, we crossed the heart of Catalonia with views of the magnificent Pyrenees on all sides. At 2 pm we arrived at Fonda Sala (pictured) in the main square of the old town of Olost.
This restaurant, now run by chef Toni Sala with his son Sergi as maître d', was opened by Toni's mother in 1959, and comprises three different elements.
The first is a constantly busy front part that serves a great-value set lunch menu (11 euros during the week, 16 at the weekend); the second, further back, is the more formal restaurant and this leads, past a sign on the wall that reads 'El Celler d'en Toni' to a wine cellar of great interest.
Here among several of Spain's top wines are also numerous vintages of the most sought-after wines of Bordeaux, including three different vintages of Le Pin, and several vintages of burgundies from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, a further reason why Fonda Sala attracts many customers from Barcelona, an hour's drive away. And, like so many collections in long-established restaurants across Spain, pride of place goes to a venerable bottle of Macallan whisky, firmly under lock and key.
The proximity to Barcelona also provides Toni with much of the inspiration for his menu. A plateful of simply grilled clams; a fillet of hake grilled with a garlic purée and asparagus; a main course salad of daintily prepared, large prawns that are the speciality of Palamos, the fishing town north of Barcelona; and tuna with a sweet and sour sauce, all of which were excellent.
But one first course, plump cannelloni stuffed with pheasant meat under a creamy béchamel sauce, raised my eyebrows and brought a smile of anticipation to the faces of our Spanish friends. 'From October Toni's menu resounds with the game, truffles and wild mushrooms that this area is famous for. We will be back', they added quite unnecessarily.
There is a marked contrast between the rather confined interior of this restaurant and the wide open spaces that extend on all sides from the terrace of the hotel Els Casals, a steep 30-minute drive away. But there is one strong connection between the two: family.
The nearby farm which supplies so much to this hotel and restaurant has been in the Rovira family for well over a century and remains under the beady eye of Dolores, a sprightly 80, and the active management of the genial Jordi, one of her five sons.
Twenty years ago fire destroyed what is now the reconstituted hotel at a time when Oriol (pictured), Jordi's younger brother, was just beginning to train as a chef and so the family moved into 'agroturisme'. Els Casals’ subsequent renown is not, however, entirely due to the fact that Oriol is now one of Spain’s most respected chefs.
The location is magical as the hotel, on a hilltop, has a panoramic view of the verdant countryside. A glass of top-quality Cava from Gramona, a plate of salami and tiny green peppers, and a view of the sunset with cowbells clinking in the distance made for an unforgettable aperitif.
The farm, only three kilometres away, provides everything for Oriol's kitchen, and is the kind of support system any chef today would dream of. I watched a young chef drive in at midday, pick his own tomatoes, courgette flowers and thin leeks and head back to the kitchen. They also cure their own sobrassada, butifarra and chorizo.
And Oriol, who has just opened a pork restaurant in Barcelona (Pork boig per tu, literally 'pork, crazy for you') has certainly developed the necessary adroitness to turn what Nature offers to best advantage.
These skills were best exemplified in two dishes that were a complete contrast in preparation. The first was a wide, white oblong plate of eight different tomatoes, each peeled and reassembled, and then anointed with olive oil, garlic and sheep's cheese. The second was a heavily reworked shoulder of lamb, elegantly presented in thin slices, with its innate fattiness negated by a sprightly combination of lemon vinaigrette, leeks, mint and onion. The light, wooden interior of the restaurant is somehow very relaxing while the circular, metal wine cellar in the middle could have come from a Doctor Who set.
And in a gesture that augurs well for the future of Els Casals and the Rovira family, Oriol has proudly named two of his desserts after his daughters. Paula is represented by a combination of lemon, white chocolate and hot pepper, Ariadna by a rum baba with vanilla.
Fonda Sala Plaça Major 17, 08516 Olost de Llucanes; tel +34 938 880 106
Els Casals 08517 Sagas; tel +34 938 251 200